David Auburn, Lisa Randall, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Jonathan Weiner on “what makes a great play about science”

Every fall the EST/Sloan Project brings together playwrights, scientists, and science writers to brainstorm ideas about “what makes a great play about science.” This year’s participants included Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Auburn, author of Proof; Harvard theoretical physicist Lisa Randall; astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of Hayden Planetarium; and Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer Jonathan Weiner. Doron Weber, vice-president of Programs at the Sloan Foundation, moderated the far-ranging ninety-minute discussion. A selection of excerpts follow (you can also watch video excerpts):

Weber: Since most of the audience is playwrights, I’d like to say that, in addition to EST, which is our flagship partner, we have a relationship with Manhattan Theatre Club and Playwrights Horizon. We have commissioned over 250 plays in the last decade plus. There’s a play now on Broadway we are supporting [An Enemy of the People]. And there are many ways we try to support the work in addition to the initial productions. We have a relationship with L A Theatre Works where we have done a series of audio recordings with A-list actors of some 20 plays about science, including Proof. We just did Copenhagen with Alfred Molina reading the part of Bohr. These recordings go to libraries and to 3,000 schools and are now incredibly popular on Chinese radio. Millions of people in China are listening to plays that were written for these commissions. A play we did two years ago, Photograph 51, is now being developed into a film. So I am encouraging you to devote yourself to this program.

Lisa, tell us one play that deals with science that you like, an example of something that you think did a good job.

Randall: There are probably many good plays about science but I have to say, and I’m not just saying this because he’s sitting next to me, but I really, really did love Proof. I actually thought it was one of the best plays I’ve seen for many reasons. I also saw Breaking the Code last year in Cambridge. That was about Alan Turing and breaking the Enigma process. It was historical, about what was happening during World War II and the development of computers and also about his personal life. I thought it was woven in a very interesting way. And Copenhagen did a very nice job of using physics as metaphor and again dealt with a historical event but also communicated what was going on at the time in physics.

But with Proof – this is embarrassing because you’re sitting here.

Auburn: I’m not embarrassed at all (laughter)

Randall: There were a couple of things I liked. Sometimes when you see things you don’t get a sense of what it’s really like to be doing the thing itself. You see a play or a movie about a writer and you hear a typewriter busily typing but you don’t actually know what they’re thinking or how they’re getting into it. And I think there was a way you got into the people’s heads. And I have to say that I really like the idea of just thinking about what proof means, just in life, you know, when you have people who aren’t listening to you – how do you prove anything to them? And I don’t usually focus on this but I actually think that for the woman mathematician character, it really got at a lot of the issues that women really face. You had people who just weren’t listening and how do you say something to people who aren’t listening?

Weber: Neil, tell us something about your work that would be of interest to us from a storytelling perspective.

Tyson: It’s not so much a matter of my work. There’s a broader story to be told. In the context of playwriting, it doesn’t matter to me if your play is science-themed. I think it’s great if it is. Here’s what’s been missing: it’s probing the mind and the decision-making tree that goes on inside the mind of a scientifically literate person. That’s what’s missing in all the great literature. I know how a cop thinks, a doctor thinks, a lawyer thinks. I know how the wronged lover thinks. But how does a chemist think? How does a physicist think? A biologist? A mathematician? You probe emotions that are folded in with whole other kinds of brain training and you have a different story to tell. I’m so disappointed when I see characters rehashed and I think of all the story telling that could happen that isn’t.

Dare I suggest that that’s why the TV sitcom The Big Bang Theory has been so successful? It shows a bunch of nerdy, nerdy people -- living. That’s all it is. There are things they do. You know? Oh, I want to make my soda colder. OK, let me drop it for a second into some liquid nitrogen. It’s things they have in their house. . . . So, why hasn’t anyone written a story about the entomologist, you know, an expert on bugs, falling in love with an exterminator. Where’s that story? I want that story.

Weiner: There really is a huge opportunity in storytelling with scientists because they’re as obsessed as we are as writers. They’re obsessive in similar sorts of ways. They’re thinking about their work all the time just as we are when we’re engaged in storytelling. They love it and they love the genealogies. I was hanging around with these young scientists today who were doing an experiment. In the throes of the experiment, they were also kind of competing about their family trees in their field: who descends from the great neuroscientists of the 1920s and who, sadly, does not. You can actually go online and find these genealogies. They’re called neurotrees and they’re kept up as religiously as Wikipedia entries, back through a hundred years.

There’s also something very special in storytelling terms about scientists when you can find a scientist who has something in their personal stories or in their character that speaks to the research. That’s not always the case. It’s hard to find. Since I write nonfiction I actually do have to find them. I think it’s wonderful when you can find some interesting way of marrying the two. The character and the subject. When you do, it’s extraordinary. There’s a great deal of interest and drama. There’s almost a renaissance emotion for the writer and then for the audience in seeing that humanity in the search of the science. . . In both Proof and Copenhagen you see that. You see the obsessions, the passions, and in interesting ways, the connection of the characters’ inner mechanism with the work. And you need to get to know the scientists well in order to do that.

Weber: David, you are not a mathematician. What led you to write about mathematicians?

Auburn: I didn’t set out to write a play about science or math. I started with what I thought were interesting enough dramatic ideas that I could get going on a play. As I recall it, one was an idea about two sisters who found something left behind after a parent’s death and then began arguing about who it belonged to and who should control it. And the other idea was about someone who was approaching the age when many people experience the onset of mental illness -- in their early twenties – and, knowing that it had happened to their father, fearing it would happen to them. I came to the math in an effort to combine those two ideas somehow.

One of the triggers was I was reading a book about the mathematician Paul Erdös. It was called The Man Who Loved Only Numbers. I don’t know if he was crazy exactly but he was certainly a borderline character. And the book introduced me to this world of mathematicians that I knew a little bit about because I had known some in college. These people, many of whom have that kind of obsessive relationship to creativity, and also who have a pleasurable relationship to it, which I found very appealing. A delight in the powers of their own creativity. An excitement in uncovering new worlds, making connections that weren’t there before. And I thought if I could get some of that going in a character who was also very fearful about what the implications of that would be for them. If the thing that they both hoped they would become, a profoundly creative mathematician, was also the thing that signaled that they were in real trouble mentally, I thought that would be very interesting. So that kind of came about in a backhanded way.

It turned out to be this wonderful experience, both because the play worked well and because I got to meet all these wonderful people. I probably spent two years both before and afterwards talking with mathematicians, spending time with them, and hanging out with them. In terms of the mental illness component which became somewhat controversial because a number of mathematicians got annoyed, not just because of this play but other things implied this connection and they were getting tagged as loonies in popular culture. I did a panel with this one mathematician who became a friend after the play and he had brought to the panel some kind of statistical breakdown he had found of the incidence of mental illness by profession and it had mathematicians more in the twenties and writers at #1. (laughter) I try to repeat that on his behalf whenever I do one of these panels.

Watch video excerpts of this discussion.

Read more about The EST/Sloan Project

Don’t miss this year’s EST/Sloan Mainstage Production, Isaac’s Eye